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While police departments across the nation are grappling with calls for reform and community engagement, several in Minnesota are quietly adding officers that can do what most cannot — sniff out suspects and find missing people and, while they're at it, bring some doggone joy to folks.

"A lot of people just love dogs," said Dave Bentrud, Waite Park police chief, about police dogs. "They end up being community ambassadors."

But many departments are relying on grants and community donations to fund K-9 units because budgets are tight due to the pandemic and other rising costs.

Last fall, AKC Reunite donated $75,000 to eight law enforcement agencies across the state — including $7,500 to Waite Park — to help purchase new police dogs to create or expand K-9 units. Also receiving grants were police departments in Cottage Grove, New Hope and St. Paul, and sheriff's departments in McLeod, Swift, Crow Wing and Washington counties.

"These grants will help soften the financial burden of creating or expanding their K-9 units and will contribute to increased safety in these communities," said Tom Sharp, chief executive of AKC Reunite.

Many police dogs are used for apprehension and drug interdiction, while others are trained to sniff out explosives or offer support to victims at county facilities, including attorney offices in Stearns, Ramsey and Hennepin counties.

In Waite Park, officer Andrew Lehmkuhl hopes the new police dog will help the department be more engaged with the community through demonstrations and other events.

"I think the biggest missing piece in the whole law enforcement realm right now is officers getting out and speaking directly to the public," he said. "This is an awesome opportunity to push that and get officers directly involved with the community."

Waite Park is looking to rebuild its K-9 unit after being without a police dog for more than two years. The department has a long history of police dogs dating back to the mid-1980s but gave its last K-9 officer, Parker, to the St. Cloud police department when his handler resigned. The department then sold its specialized K-9 squad car to the Paynesville police department.

Before Waite Park could get another police dog, Bentrud needed to work on rebuilding the department's human force.

"After we lost our handler, we had some retirements and some other work-related injuries. It was really hard for us to be able to pull an officer out of the schedule to go to an extensive training," Bentrud said. "I think we may have gotten down to as low as 14 officers at one point."

Now fully staffed with 21 officers, the department is purchasing a dog this spring. But the cost to purchase or retrofit a squad car — upwards of $30,000 — isn't in the budget, so Bentrud is asking for community donations.

Waite Park's police dog will be used for apprehension and searching for people.

"We have over 500 business so when it comes to burglaries and forced entries, to be able to clear a building with a K-9 — from an officer safety standpoint — is a good thing," Bentrud said. "And in certain cases, they are just that visible deterrent to somebody that is upset, angry, hostile, threatening. Just that presence of the K-9 could deescalate a situation such that we don't have to use force. We can gain compliance that way."

City leaders like Bentrud are hoping the dogs can inspire conversations and cohesiveness in communities, as well.

"That's the amazing thing," he said. "There's so much support for a K-9."